Chacour, Elias (1939–)

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Chacour, Elias

Bishop Elias Chacour (also Ilyas Shakur), also known as Father Chacour and Abuna Chacour, is the first Palestinian bishop to be born, raised, and educated in the Palestinian Arab sector of Israel. Chacour rose to international prominence in Europe, North America, Australia, and the Middle East as a peacemaker, educator, and founder and president of Mar Elias University and its related educational institutions in Ibillin, a Palestinian Arab village located in the Galilee between Haifa and Nazareth. As a recipient of numerous international awards and three-time nominee of the Nobel Peace Prize, Chacour began to be recognized by Israeli leadership as a prominent educator and advocate for the underprivileged Arab sector of Israel. Chacour is the author of three books that highlight his life story, including his work to build the various schools and university that comprise the Mar Elias educational institutions. His writings also tell of his philosophy and theology of nonviolence and work to transform the impoverished Palestinian Arab communities of the central Galilee through education of the youth of the region. Moreover, his commitment to reconciliation and collaboration among the four major religious communities of the Holy Land (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Druze) continues to leave a legacy of peaceful coexistence, not only in the Galilee, but globally.


Chacour was born on 29 November 1939 in the village of Bir'am, in the upper Galilee of Palestine to a Palestinian Christian family of the Melkite Catholic Church, the Byzantine Eastern rite church in communion with Rome. When he was eight years old Chacour and his entire village were evicted by Israeli soldiers during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and became refugees in their own land. The Chacour family fled with most residents of Bir'am to Jish, a neighboring village in the Galilee. After two years of legal appeals to the government of Israel, the residents of Bir'am were allowed to return in order to celebrate Christmas in their original homes. But in September 1953, the Israeli military destroyed the village just before the refugees tried to return. As they reached the top of the hills overlooking their village, they could see the smoke rising from their former homes.

The Chacour family placed a premium on education and remained close to the church. By the age of eleven, Elias was convinced he wanted to become a priest. After completing his primary and secondary education in Haifa and Nazareth he was sent to Paris by the Melkite Church where he studied for the priesthood, graduating with a degree in theology and biblical studies from the Sorbonne University in 1965. A few months after completing the degree Chacour was ordained a priest in the Melkite Catholic Church and was promptly sent by his bishop to the village of Ibillin. It was envisioned as a temporary one-month transition, but has now become a lifetime assignment.

In 1968 Chacour received his master's degree in Bible and Talmudic studies from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the first Palestinian Arab to receive such a degree in that department. Returning to Ibillin, he concentrated on the youth of Ibillin, establishing a youth center and summer camp in addition to his regular priestly duties at the church. However, Chacour noted that his ministry would need to be enlarged beyond that of a village priest. From his own youth, Chacour knew that most of the Arab villages did not have adequate schools, libraries, or playgrounds, and that a university education was beyond the reach of over 90 percent of the population. With over 50 percent of the Palestinian Arabs in the Galilee under sixteen years of age, Chacour decided to focus his educational mission on several Arab villages in central Galilee, such as Jish, Tarshiha, Mi'liya, Shefa Amr, and Isifya, in addition to Ibillin. Within three years he established kindergartens, public libraries, tutorial programs, and youth centers in the six villages. Additionally, each summer he organized regional youth camps that involved up to five thousand youth.

Chacour completed his Ph.D. in ecumenical theology at the University of Geneva (Switzerland) in 1971 and again returned to focus on his work in Ibillin and the neighboring Galilean towns. After several years of planning, fund-raising, construction, and appeals to the Israeli Ministry of Education for a building permit, Chacour opened the Mar Elias High School with eighty students in 1982, but without a building permit. Chacour's persistence, combined with international pressure from his many friends in Europe and North America, eventually secured the permit and official status for the school. Enrollment has steadily grown to approximately fifteen hundred students, with the high school receiving numerous academic awards, including taking first place in the Hebrew language (10th and 11th grades) in the entire country of Israel in 2003.

In 1984 Chacour published his first book, Blood Brothers, which describes his personal journey from the time of his expulsion from Bir'am to the process of building Mar Elias High School. The volume has been translated into twenty-seven languages.

Chacour was elected in 2006 as the Melkite Catholic bishop of the Galilee. The Melkite Catholic community represents the largest body of Christians in the Holy Land with the majority living in the Galilee.


Chacour was nurtured in the Christian faith and by his devout parents, simple peasants who were active in the Melkite Catholic Church. From an early age Elias learned the centrality of peace, justice, reconciliation, and a strong sense of sumud (Arabic: steadfastness), for his people, as was modeled and taught by Jesus of Nazareth in the Sermon on the Mount, from whom Chacour drew inspiration and vision. The tragedies that befell his people and his family's ordeal in losing their home and possessions in 1948 became the seeds for his eventual commitment to serve the underprivileged Palestinian Arab youth of Galilee through the educational institutions and programs he established throughout his career.


Name: Elias Chacour (Ilyas Shakur)

Birth: 1939, Bir'am, mandatory Palestine

Nationality: Palestinian; citizen of Israel

Education: B.A., Sorbonne University (Paris), 1965; M.A., Hebrew University (Jerusalem), 1968; Ph.D., University of Geneva (Switzerland), 1971


  • 1965: Ordained to the priesthood in the Melkite Catholic Church; parish priest in Ibillin, Galilee
  • 1982: Founds Mar Elias High School in Ibillin
  • 1995: Founds Mar Elias Technological College in Ibillin
  • 1997: Founds Mar Elias Teachers' Resource Center in Ibillin
  • 1998: Founds Mariam Bawardi Elementary School in Ibillin
  • 2003: Mar Elias College becomes Mar Elias University
  • 2006: Elected Melkite Catholic bishop of Galilee


Since the late 1970s and each successive decade, Chacour has traveled the globe spreading his message of peace and reconciliation while also appealing for support for the Mar Elias schools. His growing notoriety in religious and peace circles brought a steady stream of international visitors to Ibillin, many to spend several weeks in a volunteer service capacity, others for a short visit to see Abuna Chacour and the high school. Churches and peace organizations throughout Europe, North America, Australia, and India have hosted Chacour where he has been welcomed as a popular lecturer, as evidenced in the many awards and citations. He has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize on three occasions: 1988, 1989, and 1994. Also in 1994, Chacour received the prestigious World Methodist Peace Award. Among the previous recipients were former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, Egypt's Anwar Sadat, and Nelson Mandela of South Africa.

In 1999 Chacour received two honors in France as he was awarded the Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur by the president of France, and later in the same year the Marcel Rudloff Peace and Tolerance Award in Strasbourg. This was followed in 2001 by the Niwano Peace Award from Japan, which came with a cash prize that helped build the Niwano Peace Auditorium on the Mar Elias campus. The auditorium opened in 2004 with a seating capacity of fifteen hundred the largest in the Galilee.

Beginning in 1995, Chacour's vision for additional institutions of higher learning began to be fulfilled with the opening of Mar Elias Technological College in October 1995. The college was fully accredited by the Israeli Ministry of Education and authorized to offer degrees in education and computer technology. In 1997 the Mar Elias Resource Center opened, offering both training and resources for educators throughout Galilee, also the first for the Arab population. In the fall of 1998 another school was added to the growing Mar Elias group as the Mariam Bawardi Elementary School opened with the first-grade class. Each year a grade has been added with the full six grades now in full operation.

The next stage of the vision was realized in October 2003 as the college became Mar Elias University, the first Arab Christian university in Israel. Mar Elias offers three degree programs with U.S. accreditation as a branch of the University of Indianapolis. The university continues to serve the four religions of the Holy Land: Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Druze, and its faculty also represents the four religions. The university received accreditation from the Israeli Ministry of Education's Committee on Higher Education, with authorization to grant degrees in computer science, communications and marketing, and environmental science and chemistry.

In April 2002 Chacour authored his third book, J'ai foi en nous, published by Hommes de Parole, Paris. The international awards continued, such as the prestigious Peacemaker in Action Award in August 2002 from the Tannenbaum Center for Inter-religious Understanding in New York City. In December 2002 he was awarded the Dante Alighieri Peace and Human Rights Award in Rome. In 2003 Chacour was appointed by the Vatican as consultant to the Holy See Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, and later received the Prix Meditérranée pour la Paix from the Accademia del Mediterraneo, Naples, Italy. On 20 May 2003 he was voted Man of the Year by the Lions Club of Israel.

The next building on the Mar Elias campus was a long-term dream of Chacour, realized in the fall of 2005 with the opening of the Church of the Sermon on the Mount. The majestic sanctuary is a testimony to peace, reconciliation, and the inclusion of all religions and people. The church quickly became the center of the burgeoning campus of the Mar Elias Educational Institutions. Later in 2005 Chacour received the coveted Americas First Freedom Award in Richmond, Virginia.


Chacour is the first Palestinian Arab bishop in the Melkite Church to be born, raised, educated, consecrated, and a citizen of Israel. The new bishop was quick to point out that he will retain his duties as the president of the Mar Elias Educational Institutions, where he envisions an expanded campus with a student enrollment of five thousand students from the entirety of Israel, continuing his commitment to an inclusive student body of Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and Druze students and faculty. Having started in 1982 with eighty-two students in a building without a permit or electricity, the Mar Elias Educational Institutions now serve over four thousand students. It continues to be the only private campus in the history of Galilee where all of the religions of the region study together with the vision of creating a common future built on respect and justice for all. No other primary, secondary, or higher education institution in Israel can make that claim.

As an educator and man of peace, Bishop Elias Chacour has pioneered an educational model of interreligious education among the Christian, Druze, Muslim, and Jewish youth of the Galilee. His capacity to dream large and solicit funding from multiple international bodies have enabled him to build a significant system of institutions within the Mar Elias complex. The true legacy of his work are the thousands of young lives that have received not only an education and vocational training skills, but a respect for each others' religions and cultures, and a model for successfully negotiating their differences through nonviolent conflict transformation.



Blood Brothers. Grand Rapids, MI: Chosen Books/Zondervan Publishing Company, 1984.

We Belong to the Land. San Francisco: Harper and Row Publishing, 1990.

J'ai foi en nous. Paris: Hommes de Parole, 2002.

                                               Donald Wagner

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Chacour, Elias (1939–)

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